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Sacramento Bee
Feb 12, 2006 - 01:00 AM

by Andy Furillo, Bee Capitol Bureau

Suddenly, infrastructure is hot;

Governor's overhaul plan is getting good poll numbers as rivals offer their own versions.
He's pitched it to police chiefs in Palm Springs, school administrators in Monterey and business leaders in Los Angeles. He's campaigned for it next to freeways, in train stations and even on a levee in Rancho Cordova with 35,000 cubic feet of the American River rushing past him every second.

Generating buzz and passion, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is all in, and then some, for what he has helped make one of the leading issues in the state this year -- infrastructure.

One major statewide poll showed overwhelming support for the infrastructure plan Schwarzenegger unveiled in his State of the State speech, making it a safe and popular starting point for a governor running for re-election after getting walloped in the special election campaign he initiated last year.

Democrats are charging ahead with their own version of infrastructure overhaul, but they're going to find it tough going to upstage a governor who in the last month has given 13 speeches and conducted an untold number of meetings with lawmakers, interest groups and opinion makers on what has suddenly become his favorite topic.

"He's driving the dialogue," Republican political strategist Ken Khachigian said. "He's driving the debate, and that's a big, big change from playing defense, like he was through the special. I think from his point of view, it's all positive."

Democratic political consultant Darry Sragow said Schwarzenegger has struck the right kind of bipartisan tone, a necessary condition for selling his plan. But whether it helps him politically remains to be seen.

"They're clearly linked, the bonds and his re-election prospects," Sragow said. "The unknown is whether people who were uncomfortable with him last year but who were comfortable with him before will decide for a second time if they trust him and want him to lead."

Schwarzenegger, in a San Jose speech Thursday to about 300 of the Silicon Valley's business elite, hammered again on what he sees as the state's infrastructure failure - ports that can't unload goods quickly enough, freeways jammed so thick they're costing businesses billions, schools sagging beneath surging numbers of students and river levees that could crack under the pressure of the next 200-year flood.

The Republican governor drew on the words of architect Daniel Burnham to say he is one to "make no little plans," and that he is out "to stir men's blood" with the $222 billion, 10-year "strategic growth plan" he first laid out in his State of the State speech Jan. 5.

"This state has always aimed high," the governor said. "It has a stirring history of big plans and great ambition. If we take on this challenge -- which I know we will -- Californians today and in future generations will reap tremendous benefits."

The celebrity governor's focus on infrastructure has made it, in some circles, the subject of cocktail chatter. But Democrats point out that the issue actually predates the State of the State speech. One of their own -- Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata -- introduced a fairly comprehensive proposal of his own last year.

"While the governor's been banging the drum a little louder than we are over the last month, I don't think it ought to get as much resonance as what Democrats in the Senate and the Assembly have been talking about for the last two years," Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, said in an interview. "There are multiple proposals out there. We think ultimately it will be a win-win. But it won't just qualify as the governor's effort. It will be a collective effort."

Perata on Friday launched television ads touting his plan in Republican areas of the state.

Legislative Republicans also have their own infrastructure takes, which include a "pay-as-you-go" proposal to finance more of the plan out of general fund revenue. They also want to ease environmental restrictions and keep the lid on labor spending.

"Generally, we like where it's going," said state Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman, R-Irvine, of the governor's plan. "We want to prioritize spending a little more -- we think the major emphasis should be in roads and levees and water, and we want to stop this from being like a Christmas tree."

A Public Policy Institute of California poll released Jan. 26 showed that 68 percent of the state's adult residents like the gist of Schwarzenegger's plan. But the poll found differences in priorities, with educational facilities getting the most support, followed by transportation and water systems.

A clear majority of likely voters, 57 percent, said they will support Schwarzenegger's down payment on the overall plan, a $25 billion bond proposal that the governor is trying to get on the ballot in either June or November. But 68 percent preferred Perata's plan, which would cost $13.1 billion, keep high-speed rail on track and include $1.4 billion for affordable housing.

"The general concept that we ought to be spending more in these categories of infrastructure is a very popular idea, reinforced by the fact people are hearing it from both sides of the aisle," said PPIC poll Director Mark Baldassare. "The challenge is going to be working through the details, convincing people the right amount is being spent on the right things."

Schwarzenegger would fund his plan with $68 billion in bonds over the next decade, leveraging the rest with federal and local contributions.

It is weighted heavily toward transportation, at $107 billion, which he inextricably links with air quality. Schools are in line for $48.2 billion overall and the biggest chunk of the bond funding at $26.3 billion. Flood control and water supply ($35 billion overall, $9 billion bond-funded) and public safety ($17.4 billion and $6.8 billion) come next in line of magnitude under the plan.

In San Jose, the business folk came down hugely in favor of the governor's proposals.

"Without the infrastructure, everything else fails," said Dick Levy, CEO and chair of Varian Medical Systems, a medical equipment company based in Palo Alto with $1.4 billion in annual sales. "I think he made a very strong point, that if we don't do these very basic things, we're building on a crumbling base. So I'm a believer."

High-tech giant Hewlett-Packard sees Schwarzenegger's call to infrastructure as critical to the company's future, said California Government Affairs Director Kristine Berman. HP needs better schools to educate its future work force, better roads for employees who largely live in the Central Valley and fight traffic on their way over the hill to work, and better levees to keep everybody safe, Berman said.

"For us as a company, some of our major issues are just that, to see that we have infrastructure in place so that we can keep the economy vibrant so we can keep growing our business and growing jobs in California," she said.

While Schwarzenegger had no problem selling the business people in San Jose, he can expect his plan to undergo considerable scrutiny from his detractors.

"There's a lot of concern that this infrastructure bond becomes the nation's largest thank-you note to his political donors," said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "What we're going to have to watch over the coming months is the influx of campaign money from the builder-developer community."

BY THE NUMBERS
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's infrastructure plan:
* Length of program: 10 years
* Total proposed spending: $222 billion
* Voter approved bonds proposed: $68 billion
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The Bee's Andy Furillo can be reached at (916) 321-1141 or afurillo@sacbee.com




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